reading for comfort

I remember a time when the winter was the season to hunker down by a roaring fire and read about your favourite warm weather hobby / pastime / obsession. You couldn’t actually do ‘it’ as it was too cold, but at least you could take pleasure in reading about it. For example, before the days of year-round cricket, somewhere in the world, brought to our firesides courtesy of Sky TV, we cricket fans used to spend the winter reading about the noble game, conscientiously reading through last year’s Wisden, for example, to ensure we had all the relevant facts at our fingertips come the new season (eagerly awaited). None of the above applies in this day and age, at least not to cricket, but there is still an element of the rhythm of the seasons in the world of wine-making at least in our small version of it there is.

What I’m trying to say in my ‘look at me I’m a writer’ kind of way is that, in the absence of any work in the vineyard (at least until we see what damage the recent high winds in this part of the world have done or ‘wreaked’ if I wanted to be a proper writer), the months of December and January are the time to read about vine growing and wine making. I do this to take a little comfort and to gird our loins against the impending challenge of this new year. And there’s plenty to go at reading-wise from the Christmas presents, see above for example from number one son. In this kind of book I look for examples around the world where, on the face of it, vines shouldn’t grow, grapes shouldn’t ripen and wine shouldn’t be made and probably say 25 years ago, they didn’t and it wasn’t. But now when I search for comfort in the coldest, furthest north (or south), highest, windiest, rainiest, least fertile, etc. I can almost always find some place less likely to engage in wine production than us but which are doing. Mostly. So time well spent. Mostly.

On the other hand you come across articles long and short in the papers like this one in The Guardian a few weeks ago. The headline was – English wine exports sparkle globally. Oh dear I thought, another one of those success stories that offers absolutely no comfort at all. ‘More than 5 million bottles of sparkling and still were produced in the UK in 2015’ and ‘land under vine has doubled over the last 10 years’. Stop it I can’t bear it when other people are so successful. Move on to other sources, in this case the excellent journal of the Mercian Vineyards Association of which I am a member (more of which in a moment), called The Grapevine. For a very reasonable membership fee even numpties like me can usually find an article to offer, if not comfort, then at least, helpful advice.

Always good value, and in the latest magazine, an article by John Buchan, entitled Words of Wisdom from Agronomy, (not your everyday catchy headline but never mind) summarising thus far (not all the yields data was in at the time of writing) the year of 2016. He writes, ‘yields are well down on last year (you can say that again, pal and credit the local sheep for that) but the quality is well up and probably the best for a number of years’. Hmm, not quite so encouraging but if I made a huge effort to see the positive and supposed that small production meant better quality, well I can get behind that given the miniscule returns from our vineyard. John goes on to say, ‘there have been significant variations between areas and vineyards (how true, how true) due to a number of factors. Early frosts caught out some and the following cold weather and high winds (they know nothing of high winds, southern softies) kept soil temperatures down. This resulted in poor flowering, depending on variety (or no flowering at all in the case of our Solaris but I have a plan for them) and site (well check out the Yorkshire Andes why don’t you?). Thus yields were compromised at an early stage.

Yes, that’s more like it, a fair smattering of Schadenfreude there. Perhaps we can carry on. I can certainly carry on with the reading and this last ‘reading’ section from a surprising source, surprising in that it is new. It seems that the UKVA have set up a members ‘chat room type thing’ where all members I guess get all the emails of other members about their areas of concern and general issues affecting English and Welsh wine. And there’s one right there. I’ve never received so many emails, probably 30 or 40 in the last month and one of the main threads (is that the right word?) has been what to call our wine, particularly the sparkling stuff – should it be marketed, primarily it seems from reading the emails (apart from the bloke who sells most of his wine to his local golf club), to the USA, as British Fizz, English and or Welsh Fizz? How do Americans refer to us? As Brits, English, Welsh, Scottish and so what makes sense as a label description? People had an awful lot to say but then I guess it’s important to commercial vineyards if not exactly to us. The other main thread, and one that is of concern to us, concerns the location of the only training centre for all things viti or vinicultural, Plumpton College based in Devon. I knew it was a long way, couldn’t be any further, from Yorkshire, but it seems it is also a long way from Cornwall and Oxford, to name two. This surprises me but not them in that these respondents were strongly making the case for more regional-based training courses. A point with which I heartily agree, if ever a couple needed training it’s me and Mrs Summerhouse. Last year Wineskills offered regional training in Yorkshire if we could get enough people together to make it worth the while for a Plumpton tutor to brave the hostile lands of Yorkshire. I personally attended three courses in this way including winter pruning. But then DEFRA withdrew the funding and the regional courses ended.

So it made me smile to read in the same article above a quote from environment secretary, Angela Leadsom – ‘thanks to sparkling rose and chardonnay from Sussex, we are taking our place among the world’s most renowned wine producers.’ Am I missing something or should there be a caveat added to this, something along the lines of – and no thanks to you and your government and yes, we forgive your southern bias.

So there we are, some comfort in the written word in these dark winter months, enough I guess for us to continue our, thus far, uneven struggle against location and climate. I’m even contemplating buying more vines and doing something unusual with them but you’ll have to wait for this until probably the next vineyard blog.

PS. By the way and back to basics, Mrs SH has just cooked, for tonight’s meal, Ragu, popularly, although I think inaccurately, known as Spaghetti Bolognese, with our very own wine (made entirely from Rondo grapes). It was excellent.

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